The Watershed Approach

The present is built upon the decisions of the past. State lines, county lines, and municipal boundaries have evolved from political forces – including wars, treaties, and legislative wrangling.

Water though knows nothing of political boundaries and a lot about gravity. In every watershed in the world, it flows from higher ground to lower ground, usually making its way to the ocean.

Since America’s creation, the people who manage water locally have been in conflict with those who create the political boundaries that determine how our water resources are controlled and allocated. The result is rivers keep flowing to the ocean, but the policies and laws that apply to them vary dramatically as they pass through different states, counties and municipalities.

To add to the mix, an increasing number of Americans recognize that our water resources directly affect personal health and well-being, as well as directly impact local, state, and national economies. As a result, our government has responded with the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and many other legislative actions aimed at improving the quality of our water. While these efforts have resulted in dramatic improvements in point source pollution (a single identifiable localize source of water pollution), the more difficult non-point source pollution impacts are a continuing challenge.

While difficulties remain in eradicating the point source pollution of our waters, eliminating non-point pollution requires a very different approach. The pollution itself consists of numerous foreign chemicals entering the water supply from a myriad of sources, which are ingrained into how our society operates.

In an attempt to balance their mandate to protect America’s waters and tackle the massive non-point problem, the EPA concluded that they needed to engage the public and do so at a scale never attempted before.

And so was born the 'watershed approach'. The approach "focuses public and private sector efforts to address the highest priority problems within a hydrologically-defined geographic area", rather than a politically-defined area.

In order to implement the new approach, three structural changes were necessary within the EPA:
  • They needed to develop people and technical resources within the agency dedicated to the approach. This required transforming the agency from within ... changing the attitude that the EPA was only a regulatory organization to recognizing the need for a softer public outreach capacity. This struggle continues to this day.
  • They needed to introduce regulations that promoted this approach. We see in a variety of recent legislation, especially the amendments to the SDWA and the creation of the Source Water Assessment and Protection program (SWAP). The regulations required water providers to produce an annual water quality report detailing the quality of water provided, where it comes from, and potential threats within the watershed. Suddenly water providers were no longer just pipe people, but now needed to know what was going on in their source water area.
  • They knew that for the watershed approach to succeed, they needed knowledgeable and engaged citizens involved and organized, working at a local level with the various local, state and federal agencies. They recognized that local citizens had good reasons to be involved, were familiar with the local watersheds, and would be absolutely necessary to carry out water quality monitoring. The EPA also understood the approach required organized watershed groups to provide resources and help implement the projects that would result in reduced non-point source pollution. In doing so we would make real and measurable improvements in water quality.
Today, we find ourselves years past the initial moves. There are now thousands of watershed groups in the United States carrying out the watershed approach. Many have been funded by the EPA and state programs. Individual watershed groups have varying levels of strength and success, but as a whole, they are being accepted as an important way of managing natural resources. Slowly they are being woven into the fabric of society and accepted by the existing powers as an effective new partnership to make real and lasting improvements in the water quality of our watersheds.